Borknagar – Winter Thrice (2016)

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Author: Gay For Gary Oldman

Artist: Borknagar

Album: Winter Thrice

Label: Century Media Records

 

When a Scandinavian band releases a winter-themed album in the middle of their winter, it usually means that my first experience of that record is on a sweltering Australian day, whilst dodging bushfires and dropbears. The real success of the album comes if that music can still transport me to a land of windswept fjords and frost fallen earth.

For Borknagar’s album Winter Thrice, the answer is…mostly. I have been a fan of the band for some years now, and my appreciation for their music has long outlived my interest in Dimmu Borgir, through whom I discovered this band via long-serving bassist and vocalist ICS Vortex. This band, then, was also an early gateway to the stunning pedigree of various other present and past members, including Ulver, Solefald and Arcturus, amongst others.

First and foremost I must note my original disappointment with the teasing via the video for the titular first single. Featuring the band members sheltering from a blizzard in a beautiful oak cabin, the track instantly begins with Lars Nedland AKA Lazare’s siren-like vocals, soon seamlessly substituted by ICS Vortex’s soaring wails. But as the band transitions through a gentle bridge, the unexpected occurs. Kristoffer Rygg, better known as Ulver’s Garm, provides his gentle, Opeth-like clean vocals in preparation for Andreas Hedlund AKA Vintersorg’s traditional black metal rasps.

Now, if you can count, you can notice four separate vocalists. But what caught me was that Garm has not been an official member of Borknagar since 1997 or so, although his work with Arcturus obviously keeps him close with Vortex. Indeed, despite his dominance on this track (covering most of the clean vocals in the latter part of the song), Garm is indeed only a guest vocalist here, as well as some brief contributions on album closer Terminus, according to Metal Archives.

However, moving past that initial small disappointment, three vocalists should be ample to provide diversity in this record. Opener The Rhymes of the Mountain demonstrates this, with Lazare and Vintersorg weaving around each other on a sweeping yet pummeling track, with Vortex providing the much-needed crescendos. Stylistically, the band continue the style they’ve been working for the last several years, with a melodic, pagan style of Viking black metal known to fans of Primordial, but one which flirts with progressive elements and song structures. However, the progressive elements only serve to keep songs interesting, rather than baffle listeners with Avante-Garde stylings such as those found in Arcturus. A synth element here, an off-time rhythm section there, an occasional shuffling of structures to keep the listener attentive. With only eight tracks, this mostly serves well, although on Cold Runs the River, the sheer identical repetition in lyrics, instrument and melody between different sections is a little jarring in a band which should have enough members to avoid such redundancies.

Erodent is a particular highlight, and serves to enforce the trait I suggested earlier. As Lazare sings of “waves that raid the coastal lines” over the frantic double-bass of drummer Baard, the song truly conjures the imagery and feel of standing atop a cliff-top fjord with a majestic storm sweeping overhead, and I’ve found myself humming the tune for hours after hearing it.

Terminus, too, with the return of Garm, signals another achievement of songwriting, with a complex ballet of four sets of voices alternating screams, croons and wails. However, you might notice that I have said much of the vocals, melodies and lyrics, and little of the instrumentation. Well, that is not an oversight. This album, with such a focus on the multitude of vocalists present, tends to lean itself on the metal of the vocal melodies, acrobatics and choruses, leaving instrumentation to be nearly exclusively rhythm and rather filler. When the vocal parts are outstanding accomplishments of both melody and infection, this is scarcely noticeable, and indeed, bands like Primordial are well known for their vocals being the driving melody over a pummeling rhythm.

However on tracks When Chaos Calls and Panorama, the vocals do little to catch my attention, falling short of the heights which surround them. And the mix is such that the instrumentation sits further back and lacks any real punch, that the sections become rather boring and generic.

A greater emphasis on lead guitar and creative drumming (which is admittedly more present on Noctilucent) in these songs would remedy this, but as it stands some of the tracks I’ve been unable to really care fore. But when the band hits their high notes (both figuratively and literally), their place as early contenders for songs of the year.

7/10

 

  • Gay for Gary Oldman

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